5 Watercolor Tips

It was 2007 when I became serious about wanting to use watercolors. At the time I was stubbornly sure that all I needed was to LOOK at other watercolor artist’s work in order to determine what techniques I needed to create paintings to my satisfaction. And for a long time it was enough, and it was fun!

As I became more serious about my work I started finding a few things that I really hated about watercolors, and largely was stumped by them for a long time. It’s taken me a while to figure out exactly what was going on with this tricky medium. And I’m STILL LEARNING AND HAVING PROBLEMS. Yikes!

So, in honor of 10 years fumbling around with watercolors, here are:

5 Things I Wish I’d Known About Painting with Watercolors

  1. Paper matters!!! I spent a long time struggling with the issue of wanting to work in many many many layers, but always ruining the under layer as soon as new paint was added. The lower layer would “lift” and blend and become blurred, lost, and turn to mud.Paper makes a huge difference and the right paper allows for layers. You really need a high quality paper with good “tooth” that will hold the paint for you. “Tooth” is used to describe the texture of paper. I like my paper to be smooth but very toothy. By that I mean not a lot of those dramatic waves and lumps some watercolor paper has, but it’s very sandpapery, scratchy to the touch. If it’s not weighty and toothy enough you’ll be lifting and making mud, because paper that lacks tooth lacks the ability to absorb and hold paint. I know this means more expensive paper, but alas in this case you get what you pay for.The best paper will be a thing you have to find for yourself. Some day I’ll go into more depth on this, but at the moment I’m still experimenting with different weights/kinds of paper and I can’t recommend a favorite! I will say that a heavier weight (meaning thicker paper) and cold press has been my choice thus far. It won’t be the best for every technique, and this is a matter of taste. The things possible with very “wavy” watercolor paper with pits for the pigment to sink into can be very cool!
  2. Paint matters! I’m not terribly picky about brand (yet). I will say that Crayola cakes probably won’t get you everything you want. I personally like both the high/mid quality cakes and the watercolor from the tube. Tube watercolors are nice because I can build my own palette, and then of course after they’ve dried, they act as cakes!What really matters is the COLORS themselves. Make sure you have at least 3 blues, 3 yellows, and two reds. With this base you can create really lovely RICH color. SO satisfying. Definitely make sure you experiment with mixing and don’t lean too heavily on getting all your colors from a tube. When talking about color, it gets hard to be specific without a visual! Here I have shown a sample of a variety of paint colors that I use. 1-4 represent the different kinds of blues. Notice how DIFFERENT numbers 2 and 3 look! They are both very vibrant colors with extremely unique shades. I spent a long time trying to paint with only Ultramarine Blue (#4) and was always frustrated when I couldn’t get those lovely indigo blues. Some colors are just not mixable, especially when your base color is all wrong.

    Red paint has given me no end of fits. True red paint is very expensive due to the pigment required to make it saturated and lovely. BEWARE OF ANYTHING “HUE”. These paints have the LOWEST quality pigment and will look washed out and behave strangely when mixed. Don’t trust the color on the outside of the tube, they can deceive, and a lot of red paints that look red on the outside have a very violet tint to them that makes them ALL WRONG when mixing. Though one red with a violet tint is needed, I’d recommend an Alizarin Crimson, for your second red make sure it’s a true red without an orange or blue tint in sight.

    The shades of yellow I recommend are also shown for comparison. The two above, (#9 and #10) are Cadmium Yellow and Yellow Ocher. The 3rd shade I recommend is shown below in this palette I have:This palette is great and has a wonderful selection of colors! It’s a Winsor Newton brand mini watercolor kit, and the great thing about it is that each little watercolor cake is labeled with it’s proper name. This makes it really easy when you need to restock!

    In the top left corner you can see the two shades of yellow, one being very greenish, lemony, the other very sunny, like a sunflower! The lemon yellow is in fact usually called Lemon Yellow, the sunny yellow is Cadmium Yellow. It’s amazing how different they are, and yet both still yellow. Imagine the colors you can make with these!!!

    The only complaint I have about this palette is the blues, only Ultramarine and a light blue are provided. For more flexibility you really need at least a Prussian and/or Cerulean blue.

  3. The learning curve sucks. You will have a hard time. It is generally acknowledged that this medium is really unforgiving and stupid. Play around first. Make a mess on a piece of paper and get a feel for how the paint flows/layers/lifts/blends/transparencies/salt/alcohol. It’s difficult to make it go where you want to, easy to make mistakes, hard to remember you have to work around your whites, and generally a bit of a brain teaser. You do not struggle alone.
  4. Salt and isopropyl alcohol! A sprinkling of salt creates a frosty fleck affect. Drops of alcohol create lichen/bubble looking spots. You can google the looks and techniques, it’s such fun! I used a lot of these methods on this watercolor for the background. The blotchy/bubbly effect is done with drops of alcohol:Adding layers of texture is not only extremely fun, but it gives a lot of depth to a piece.
  5. This is the really important one: You have to keep your cat off the table while you paint.


I hope this helps some of you and cuts a bit of the struggle out of using watercolors.

In the (hopefully) near future I’ll give a very in-depth list of what I use and how I use it. But first, I need to go paint and learn some more myself!

Wish me luck!


(And now, for your amusement, a sampling of my early watercolors with some of my new work.)






































10th February 2017

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